Balboa Highlands

What do you envision when you think of a historic district? I know I think of grand, at least century-old houses. Balboa Highlands is a neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley near Los Angeles consisting of about 120 Modern tract houses  built from 1963 to 1964. Despite Balboa Highlands’ relative youth, many residents want Historic Preservation Overlay Zone protection for the neighborhood. And someday, they just might get it.

Balboa Highlands was created by Joseph Eichler, a San Francisco area developer of Modern neighborhoods.  The houses were inspired by the Case Study house program, which sought to offer affordable, Modern housing options after World War II. The about 2,000-square-foot houses in Balboa Highlands had plain facades yet inside featured open living areas with walls of windows. Unique architectural features in the houses included: exposed beams, mahogany paneling, fireplaces, and skylights. The houses cost $30,000 when they were new.

Over time, changes were made to many Balboa Highlands houses that were unsympathetic to their original designs.

In the mid-1990s, design professionals discovered the neighborhood’s treasures, and housing prices soared. Before the housing market collapse, some were selling for nearly $1 million. Today, architecture buffs tour the neighborhood, and production and photography crews put Balboa Highlands in homes across the world.

Right now, L.A. has 24 H.P.O.Z. areas, most of them full of bungalows or Victorian-era structures. Balboa is eighth on a list of 16 areas under consideration. There is only one postwar L.A. neighborhood with H.P.O.Z. status, Mar Vista, which features 52 houses designed by Case Study program architect Gregory Ain.

H.P.O.Z. status makes it difficult for homeowners to make changes to the exterior of buildings. Owners of renovated houses can receive tax breaks if they choose to return their properties to the original design.

With Balboa Highlands’ rebirth there has been a self-driven effort to help protect the neighborhood. Two-thirds of Balboa Highlands residents favored H.P.O.Z. status in 2005, but the lack of a survey delayed those plans.

The case of Balboa Highlands preservation demonstrates what a huge task preservationists have for the forseeable future. There are countless tract housing communities across the country built after World War II that have reached or will soon reach the 50-year-old threshold established by the National Register of Historic Places. Are many of them worthy of historic ordinance protection? Probably not. But they all deserve to be surveyed to find out if they’re worthy or not before they’re lost or, more likely, altered beyond repair. If Balboa Highlands is struggling to get protection despite so much support from within, a neighborhood in which the residents don’t care — or don’t know — what they have doesn’t stand a chance.

Balboa Highlands presents its case for H.P.O.Z. status on its Web site. L.A. needs to give it to them!

All photos courtesy of Flickr user teamperks.

And here’s why Balboa Highlands needs H.P.O.Z. status A.S.A.P.

Update: It’s official.

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